When the heat fails in Keisha Jacobs’ Brooklyn apartment during the winter months, discomfort is just one of her troubles. The frigid temperatures create a spiral of aggravation and unplanned bills that can mar the entire season.
Her two-year-old daughter might fall ill from the cold, Jacobs told The Daily Beast—and ailing kids aren’t welcome at daycare. “They don’t want the other children to get sick,” Jacobs said. “And if she’s not at daycare, that means I have to have another arrangement for child care. And that ends up costing.”
To stay warm, Jacobs carts two space heaters around her Crown Heights apartment. It’s a familiar ritual: A few weeks ago, her home was gelid for an entire weekend.
Fickle heat is commonplace for most New Yorkers: A boiler in Brooklyn Heights might break one day, and a furnace in Brownsville the next. During the coldest months of 2013 and 2014, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) fielded over 200,000 heat and hot water complaints. But it’s low-income residents who suffer the greatest burden, their plight worsened by unresponsive landlords and limited resources.
“This is [a problem] all over the five boroughs,” said Eduardo Barahona, the executive director of Centro Hispano Cuzcatlan, a social service agency based in Queens that assists South and Central American immigrants with housing. “The landlords usually try to save some oil and money. Many of them turn off the heat during the night.” Barahona says his organization helps around 100 tenants with this issue each winter, but notes far more simply don’t seek assistance.
“[Landlords] don’t follow the rules from the city,” he added, referring to the city’s mandate that, under certain circumstances, apartments be kept at a minimum of 55 degrees. Barahona says even this legal temperature is too low. “It should be higher,” he said. “How do you feel in your apartment if the temperature is 55 degrees?”
John Fisher, a New Yorker and longtime tenant activist, witnesses the same problems as Barahona. Fisher is the director of Tenant.net, an information hub for Gotham renters. “The lower income you are, chances are you’re renting from an unscrupulous landlord who really doesn’t care all that much,” he said. “They may not spend the money to fix the boiler when it breaks. Or they may not pay for the fuel.”
Fisher says chilly tenants are forced to be creative. He’s heated his own apartment by boiling water; others might run a steamy shower with the bathroom door ajar. “There are people who will turn on their stove and leave [it] open,” Fisher added. “But that can be particularly dangerous.” For many, the alternative—an overnight at a metro hotel—is an unaffordable luxury.
Litigation can be futile, says Jenny Laurie, the executive director of New York City nonprofit Housing Court Answers. Taking a negligent landlord to court is often a labyrinthine a process. “It’s time consuming, it’s complicated, there are a lot of papers to file, [and] there’s a $45 filing fee,” Laurie said. And if renters make it to the hearing stage, they frequently flounder. “It’s very difficult for a tenant without experience [in] court to navigate the evidence roles.”
For most low-income tenants, the best recourse is to dial 311, experts told The Daily Beast. HPD can then dispatch inspectors, issue violations and carry out emergency repairs. “HPD has the most robust and aggressive housing code enforcement operation in the nation,” Eric Bederman, a spokesman with HPD, said. “Our mission is to protect the city’s tenants and its housing stock by holding landlords accountable for their legal responsibilities to properly maintain their buildings.” During the frigid months of late 2013 and early 2014, HPD spent more than $5 million on emergency repairs and penned over 11,000 heat-related violations.
Still, many landlords are able to escape unpunished, according to Celia Weaver, the assistant director of organizing at the Manhattan-based Urban Homestead Assistance Board (UHAB), a group that works with low- and moderate-income city residents. Tenants can tip off city officials, Weaver said, but when inspectors arrive the heat might be back on.
“It’s really difficult to hold landlords accountable,” she said.